Breakout Session III: Faith and Feminism - Can a Religious or Spiritual Woman be Feminist…and an Activist for Reproductive Rights?

Allendra Letsome: There are many misconceptions about the intersection of faith and feminism. We don’t want to come to any conclusions here, we just want to hear about the intersection of every faith represented here with feminism. So how is it possible to be pro-choice and of faith?

Marissa Valeri: I’m Catholic and pro-choice. There is a tradition to be pro-choice, it’s kept a big secret because now bishops want to define what Catholicism is. I disagree with the Church on birth control and abortion, but I’m still Catholic. There’s a lot of wiggle room when it comes to abortion that’s not shared, lots of misconceptions. Canon law allows a lot, but the information is withheld because it would empower the laity.

Mona Lisa Wallace: During the pre-Roe days when there was an abortion underground, many clergymembers who worked at hotlines that directed women through the underground, and many were arrested. It’s important history to remember. Patriarchy does not equal religion or spirituality. I believe in the Goddess as a pre-Abrahamic religion.

Jacqueline Steingold: I’m a Reform Jew, and we all believe in choice. I thought Orthodox Jews didn’t and I recently learned that I’m wrong. I’ve been a feminist since the 1970s, but I didn’t have a synagogue affiliation until my son was born. My feminism never conflicted with my religion. Faith allows choice and discourse. My rabbi stopping using He to refer to God and in prayerbooks, there’s no He anymore.

Valeri: “Life begins at conceptions” is not an official Catholic teaching.

Annie Laurie Gaylor: I’m co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The Bible says nothing about abortion. It’s very misogynist. Lots of clergymembers did work at abortion hotlines. Church is enemy #1 when it comes to reproductive freedom, we need to fight it.

Valeri: What do you mean when you say “Church”? The Church means the people as well, so you mean the clergy and not people. So don’t say “quit the Church,” because that means to quit the community.

Wallace: Pat Maginnis hands out flyers at Catholic churches with cartoons every Sunday and gets high fives. We can have common ground.

Jerin Arifa: I’m Muslim and I’m asked this often (how you can be Muslim and feminist), and I jokingly answer “magically!” Actually, Islam is very feminist. The Taliban kills women who want an education because if they can read The Qur’an, they’ll know their rights. Muslim women were allowed to vote, divorce, and own property centuries before Western women could. During Europe’s Dark Ages, the Muslim world was at its apex with science, art, and education, and discovered safe abortion methods, very old in Islamic tradition.

Letsome: As a Protestant (I was raised Methodist), we ask for Bible and God and critical thinking, we believe that you have to choose correct path for you. When there’s discussion among progressive people about the Church, it’s often about Catholicism and not Protestantism, and that’s irritating. We Protestants are on the progressive side too! Sometimes we fight against our allies and we have to stop doing that, we have to make distinctions. So what are everyone’s suggestions for creating a dialogue about faith in feminism?

Steingold: It needs to be here. I’m in interfaith relations, especially Jewish-Islamic, because I was ignorant and still am. I opened myself up to hear other ideas because it creates community and openness and respect for other people’s traditions. We need to try each other’s food and culture, and bring new ways of thinking to each other. NOW respects women of faith, it’s great.

Valeri: Dialogue is hard according to clergy. I say that I survived Catholic school - we’re not encouraged to talk or question, I was sent to principal for asking about abortion. We need to hear each other’s experiences. People tell me they had the same stuff happen to them, it empowers us and that threatens the clergy. We need safe spaces for feminist women of faith, where we don’t get looked at weird for being religious.

Letsome: I agree, spaces like that are important because it can be scary to be a feminist and come out as religious, because you’re afraid that people will devalue your work. It’s important for us not to try to convert others though.

Wallace: We need a new lexicon, instead of “the Church” specify who exactly you’re fighting, use more precise language.

Arifa: At the last conference I was on four panels and I loved it, it was like a family reunion. I did a workshop on misconceptions on Islam and feminism. Two panelists wore hijab and two didn’t, and we discussed everything including hate crime and it went well.  It was very packed, and people told us it taught them a lot.  There were only two exceptions.  One woman said that the solution to Muslims is to wear bikinis and eat hamburgers. This was clearly very offensive as someone who respects multiculturalism and has vegan friends.  I shot her down politely. Afterwards, when the second of the two racist women told me that Islam equals terrorism, an attendee whom I never met before defended me. The two racist women, who were in the minority, felt we had a pro-terrorist workshop and wrote letters to the National Officers, enlisting people who weren’t even present during the workshop.

Letsome: How can we make feminists better allies of faith?

Arifa: Don’t tell me what my faith is. We tend to look down at global feminists, but we can learn lots from others so don’t be condescending. Hate crimes have gone up and it’s scary. Safe space is needed.

Letsome: I can laugh at church jokes! Don’t expect me to be humorless, I can deal just because I’m of faith.

Steingold: Ask me! If you have a question, most people don’t mind answering. Safe space is definitely important. I had a black roommate and I smelled something burning and called out to her, and she explained that it was just a hot comb for her hair. I didn’t know anything about black hair, so she told me about it and now I’m more educated because of it. So don’t be afraid to ask questions. It surprised me that feminists think of faith as weird.

Valeri: You may be surprised because Judaism is pretty liberal, you’re already in a secure space. And definitely, ask me, be inquisitive, look up what stuff says. Ask because what you think may not be true.

Letsome: But really ask, don’t give a statement.

Wallace: As progressives, don’t throw baby out with bathwater. At a rally I was at there was contingent of Lutherans and another contingent had anti-religion signs. We need new lexicon.

Gaylor: I think faith in feminism should be irrelevant. Atheists are at the bottom of the totem pole, haven’t been up in social ladder. Non-religious people don’t want to ban religion. Women’s movement owes a debt to women of the 1800s who defied Bible teachings. We owe them thanks.

Arifa: I worked with domestic violence victims and I find it problematic when we compare suffering of different people, because then groups get different government grants. I don’t like that. Progressive women can be better allies because Americans tend to look down at others, and we have to reevaluate our prejudices. I’ve been told I’m stupid for being religious. Feminism is about respecting women for whatever choices they make, we need awareness for that. We need to speak up.

[Atheist-Catholic discussion where most people in room, including myself, gets majorly ticked off at Gaylor]

Wallace: There’s never a revolution without a shift from inside, we need change from within.

Arifa: I believe in women because of my faith in God - my religion tells me that men are equal to women. My faith requires me to be an activist because a good Muslim must work to end all forms of oppression.

Gaylor: My lack of religion makes me believe in women.

[More discussion where Gaylor ticks off more people in the room]

Q I’ve taken heat for being a male feminist, do men of your faiths call themselves feminists?

Arifa: My husband’s a secular feminist and he taught me more about Islam.

Steingold: Men in general, not Jewish men, are uncomfortable calling themselves feminists. They believe it but don’t like the label.

Arifa: Yeah, it’s across the board. I tried to convince my waiter to join NOW and she said she never experienced sexism, and I proved to her that she had. The best way to convert people to feminism is to start conversations with them.

Letsome: Many men don’t understand feminism. Most people ask why I’m a feminist. Some tings are easier for men of faith to digest, others take more conversation, but I get the same reactions from women of my church.

Valeri: Most men are on their way to feminism in my church.